This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
What makes a great opera singer? Verdi was only half right.
What makes a phenomenal opera singer? Answering this question correctly is crucial for an opera company. The answer is an axis around which revolve a cast, a business, a symphony, even a wider community. At the center of the publicity, the construction projects, and the audience is the core from which the rest is built: an exquisite human instrument. People come to be dazzled by the voice. For over twenty-five years, the task of answering opera’s crucial question—what makes a phenomenal opera singer?—belonged to Opera Grand Rapids’ Maestro Robert Lyall.
When asked this very same question, Lyall is quick to invoke immortal composer Giuseppe Verdi. “The classic response is to quote Verdi himself. He was asked the three most important characteristics of a great opera singer. He said, ‘Voce, voce, e voce.’ It’s voice. It’s what, in opera, we would call ‘the gift.’ A person can be a wonderful performer in so many ways, but a truly great opera performer must have a magnificent instrument that is properly trained to project over full orchestral sounds and fill a hall.”
But here Lyall expands on Verdi’s pithy answer. While being a singer of surpassing quality is necessary, the maestro says a performer must also have theater skills. “There used to be an old joke that said the term ‘operatic acting’ is an oxymoron.’ Well I can assure you that in today’s world, it is not. Opera singers now train in all aspects of theater arts and physical conditioning to make themselves complete participants in the drama.”
Maestro Lyall is an expert on the ingredients of that operatic drama. He joined Opera Grand Rapids in the autumn of 1989, and served as Artistic Director and General Director for twenty-six years. During his tenure, he had the pleasure of knowing a great many phenomenal opera singers, at many different chapters in their respective careers.
According to Lyall, courting and featuring emerging artists is intrinsic to the role of the regional opera house. The world stages have their roles to play, certainly, but a regional company of great repute functions differently. “Hiring famous singers is often a question of funds, but to identify burgeoning, emerging talent, and looking at their potential, is a special path opera companies should follow, particularly with our native artists.”
Opera Grand Rapids has indeed hosted its share of famous performers. 1997’s Aida at Van Andel Arena featured Piero Giuliacci in the role of Radames. Giuliacci regularly performs all over the world, bringing classics like Tosca, La bohème, and Turandot to Shanghai, Rome, and, of course, Grand Rapids. “But accompanying him were many emerging talents who were singing at regional companies, and eventually ended up at the Metropolitan Opera.” It’s important to Lyall that the highly-visible principal singers are surrounded by gifted hopefuls who may one day become stars in their own right.
Lise Lindstrom is another singer to grace the OGR stage during her rise to operatic prominence. Known as one of the world’s leading performers of both Salome and Turandot, Lindstrom has captivated audiences by bringing delicate shading and grace to some of opera’s most bombastic roles—something she did early on at OGR.
Some artists who perform at Opera Grand Rapids are truly just beginning their careers, and go on to feature in opera’s legendary arenas. A young Brian Hymell had only performed one professional production when he sang Tamino in Die Zauberflöte at OGR. His career arc is a perfect encapsulation of Lyall’s philosophy—cultivate potential, and become part of the rising star’s story. “Look at him now,” says Lyall. “He graces the world stages, singing the major repertory at the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala, and Vienna State Opera.”
The pantheon of great singers who have taken our stage is a source of pride for the maestro. Says Lyall, “There is a long list of distinguished artists that were featured in the earlier phases of their career by Opera Grand Rapids. I’m probably more proud of that than if I had been able to hire the world’s leading celebrities. Celebrities have already arrived at their level of distinction. We wanted to have some ownership of the development of great talent.”
In reflecting on his career, Lyall’s pride is always collective, spread around those who helped him sculpt a host of cherished memories. A clear sense of community and fellowship permeates his reflections. His pride in the Opera is matched by his love for the city itself. “[Having distinguished performers] is very special for establishing the role of Opera Grand Rapids in this city. This is a wealthy city in its intellectual promise, in its industrial promise, and we felt we had a very specific role to play in contributing that element to the quality of life that great arts can do,” says Lyall.
The maestro is adamant that no discussion of his career is complete without mentioning the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra. Says Lyall, “This is one of the finest professional symphony orchestras in the country. My artistic partnership with them was one of the most gratifying parts of my work in Grand Rapids. We made great music together. We like to tout them as a partner in our ventures with great pride.”
It’s clear that Verdi wasn’t wrong with his somewhat reductive take on what makes a great opera singer, but Maestro Lyall’s career suggests the quip may have been incomplete. Opera will always revolve around the voice. But that voice must be trained, recognized, and allowed to flourish. Directors must take chances on unproven artists in supporting roles, balancing the need to cultivate local and emerging talent with the public’s demand for exquisite performance. Dozens of musicians must play in perfect harmony, and the totality of the spectacle must form a moving story. The voice at the center must be sublime, but the voice alone is not opera. Perhaps a better question for the multimedia age is not “What makes a great opera singer?” but rather, “What makes a great opera?”
Lyall himself explains it perfectly: “Opera is music, it is theater, it is art. When you’re working in opera, there is a unique set of challenges. Because of the lighting, the set design, the individualized personalities, as well as the glories of the sound of the full symphony orchestra, and the grand choral works that animate it. To me, it is truly the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk concept—Opera is the total artwork.”
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